Take a cut of the heavier, proggier end of Steven Wilson and season it with a judicious pinch of jazz fusion, simmer with a touch of Blackfield and Grace for Drowning, and serve over a bed of Porcupine Tree. Present on a silver platter of fan-hype and accolades and Voila! Hand. Cannot. Erase., the new Steven Wilson solo album.
I’ve been playing this more or less regularly since the iTunes download arrived (read: at least once a day) in order to get a feel for it. I’m not sure yet where it fits in the Wilson solo canon, but my overall impression is of an album of pleasant tedium interrupted by moments of sheer beauty. And alas I find that there are not nearly enough moments of sheer beauty, or any sort of other exceptional moments. It is all very competently done (as is ever the case with Wilson): well composed, well sung, well played, but overall it tastes rather…not so much bland, as restrained.
On the plus side: HCE is poppier, proggier, and more purely face-melting heavy than anything Steven Wilson has done solo for a long time, and this is not a bad thing. These are skills that are not lacking in the Wilson musical recipe book, and his prog-pop (pop-prog?) work is nicely concise and to the point. The long instrumental passages and jazzy solo stretches of the last two albums are (mostly) gone. There are instrumental breaks, of course, but they move the song along and one doesn’t get the feeling they were stuck in there as a showcase for somebody’s chops. This is a clear improvement. The introduction and careful use of the female vocalist has worked out better than a lot of people expected: Ninet Tayeb has a wonderful voice and her parts are perfectly placed.
Wilson does have a gift for the beautiful melody, and on an album as pop-flavoured as this one, he really shines. The title track is catchy, infectious, upbeat, and surprisingly heavy at times; I’ve heard people say that it might be a bit too Blackfield-ish, but you know, he does this sort of thing so well. The man has such a vast repertoire; I see no problem with his pulling influences from wherever he needs to get them. Likewise the intense heavy moments are reminiscent of the metal-ish days of Porcupine Tree – which suits me fine because those were my favourite PT albums. It’s nice to hear them again.
I wish there were more tracks as completely immersive as “Hand Cannot Erase” but unfortunately the other stunning moments are kind of scattershot, popping up in the midst of pleasant but otherwise unremarkable tracks: the last third of “Routine”, the first bit of “First Regret/3 Years Older” for example.
And on the downside: HCE has more heart and soul than The Raven that Refused to Sing possessed, and much less (thank god) sheer wankery than was on Grace for Drowning, but despite the beautifully heartbreaking moments and joyful metal heaviness, I find it lacks a fundamental sense of adventure or daring. It is just so polite and restrained. The most applicable description is “nice”, with all the innate blandness implied in the word, and the great moments are not enough to overcome that final sense of dissatisfaction at the end of the album. It could have been so much more.
I will wind up on a more positive note because the album does end well: “Ancestral” (at least the last two thirds of it) is a mighty, mighty song. It. Kicks. Ass. in the way Deadwing kicked ass, and there are sections that could have come directly from Deadwing.
And “Happy Returns/Ascendant Here on…” is my favourite song on the album by far, heartbreaking and transcendently beautiful.
Alas, there just are not enough of these moments on this album. It is a tasty stew, but it is not Cordon Bleu.